2014 Beekeeping Review

A rare frost has covered South London in a white crust. The temperature has dropped below eight degrees for a few days so I’ve taken this as an opportunity  to treat my hives with Oxalic Acid. This winter ritual marks, for me, the end of the beekeeping year and is a time to reflect on past performance as well as look forward to the upcoming year.

The Good

This year I acquired a new apiary on a local farmer’s land. It is a beautiful spot next to a lake, the hives sit in a small wild flower meadow; if I were a bee it’s the sort of place I’d want to live. I have almost unlimited space to place hives at this site, however, I don’t have unlimited time hence my goal is to eventually house only four full time hives here.

Before searching for a new apiary site I researched how to go about finding one. Most of the advice centered on knocking door to door at places which you would want to to host a beehive. However, I have a distinct dislike of people randomly knocking on my door so didn’t feel comfortable inflecting the same behaviour on others. With that in mind I took a simpler and frankly lazier route - I placed an advert in a local newspaper. It was surprisingly effective, within three weeks I had around a dozen responses.

The Bad

My attempts at having any discipline around recordkeeping this year have been an abject failure. I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m simply over complicating it with my addiction to technology in the form of apps and spreadsheets. I’ve tried various applications on my phone, both specialist beekeeping recordkeeping apps as well as other software such as evernote which I’ve used successfully in my working life for several years.

But in truth sometimes pen and paper is the easiest option. So next year I’ll be placing some record cards under my hive roofs. It’s less fiddly than trying to update an app on my phone whilst wearing gloves and surrounded by smoky bees.

The Ugly

I’m sure when seasoned beekeepers read this part of my blog post they’ll roll their eyes.

With my new apiary site secured I placed two small nucs that I’d been keeping at my bee club’s training apiary. These had been raised from the two hives I keep at that site which are both fairly gentle stock.

Both nucs only had three frames of brood and stores and by placing them in full sized 12×14 hives I assumed they would have acres of rooms to grow for several weeks. Underestimating the productivity of my bees I then proceeded to leave them to their own devices for several weeks … oops.

Weeks later I returned to inspect them finding chaos. Both hives were completely drawn out, packed with stores and brood. One had swarmed and the other had closed queen cells. In one particularly productive hive the bees had made their way into the roof and filled it with honey stores.

I find bees are really the best teachers a beekeeper could have and they’ve taught me here that weekly inspections really aren’t optional.

Apiary Expansion: Part 1 Splitsville

I started beekeeping with a single swarm and started this season with two strong hives, but, my long term goal is to manage between six and eight hives over two apiaries. This is enough to provide a challenging hobby but not so much effort as to make it a second job.

One of the most important lessons learnt from my beeking mistakes is to have a plan for the season ahead and prepare for it. In past I’ve be caught unprepared, having to build or order kit quickly to catch up. It simply made life more difficult than it needed to be and when keeping bees the easier you make it – the better.

This year I knew I wanted to double my hives so I actually got organised – which I have to admit shocked me quite a bit.  I built, painted three hives, made up the frames and painted my poly nucs; all by the end of April.

My preparation has paid off because in England we had a delightfully warm spring which has prompted an explosion of activity by the bees and May has been a time for seemingly endless swarms. It wasn’t long before charged queen cups were in both my hives.

I have ..erm… rather enthusiastically marked my  Queens from last year which they may not have enjoyed but it does mean you can spot them from orbit. I moved them into two of my trusty poly nucs and left one queen cell up in each of the old hives. fingers crossed the girls should raise two fresh new queens in a few weeks.

I’ll be honest swarm control is still somewhat of a mystery to me and although I have the whole split thing down I’m not sure moving a laying queen into a nuc and waiting for my production hives to make a new queen is the best approach to maximizing my honey yeild? More research is required on my part on  this topic.

The rules of our association apiary stipulate a two hive per. member maximum, so now I’m on my way to four hives I need to find a new site to place them.

But I have a plan….

Surrey Beekeepers Bee Day

Beekeeping is a remarkably social hobby; if you want it to be. This is thanks to an army of generous and enthusiastic volunteers who organize events throughout the year.

In my first two seasons I failed to take advantage of these events, frankly I was too lazy to make time, but this year I’ve decided to attend a few. Boy have I been missing out!

The most recent meeting I went to was a day of presentations organised by the Surrey Beekeepers Association hosted in Ewell. It was a great venue and after registration there was time to chat to the other attendees over coffee and pastries.

The day had four presentations:

  • Paul Metcalf: The bumble Bee through the eyes of a beekeeper
  • Nick Von Westenholz: Agriculture under the neonicotinoid ban
  • Richard Ball: Managing varroa in 2014
  • Steve Alton: Bees need buddies

Unfortunately I had to leave before the final presentation but if it was as good as the previous three that was a real shame.

Paul Metcalf kicked off the day with with a very informative and amusing overview of the lifecycle of bumblebees. I was very interested to hear that they are now being cultivated as green house pollinator. A few days later I found this story on the BBC website regarding honeybee diseases jumping species to bumbles bees. One of the causes appears to be the practice of using honey bee stores in creating these bumble bee colonies which are being used in greenhouse pollination. I wonder if these farmers thought of contacting their local beekeepers association, I know that the members of mine are always keen to build new relationships with local landowners and often they could arrange to place a few hives on their land for free.

The next presentation was my Nick Von Westenholz who is the Chief Executive of the Crop Protection Association; the trade body for the pesticide industry. Given the passions surrounding this topic I must admit I wondered if it was going to become a little shouty; however everyone listened to him very politely asking some insightful and considered questions. Nick’s presentation outlined the dichotomy facing modern agricultural. There is a finite amount of land to grow food on and an ever increasing population to consume it. To address this problem he provided two options; use more land for faming or use technology to produce more food. You won’t be surprised to hear the CPA are in the technology camp, which in Britain a country that struggles with divide land between housing, agriculture, industry and conservation is probably the only real option.

After the questions and answers session we broke for lunch. This was a catered affair offering a wide choice from curry to pasta. I can report the chicken curry and apple crumble were very tasty.

The final session I caught before I had to leave was a brilliant presentation by Richard Ball on using predatory mites to control varroa. Richard has been working with the folks from Bet Vet testing a predatory mite called stratiolaelaps scimitus against varroa. This mites have been used in pest control on chickens for well over decade and Richard reported some very promising data from his trails. The biggest challenge appeared to be the distribution mechanism as these mites live in soil. An ingenious solution to this is to put the soil and mites inside teabag type packaging which can be laid on top of the frames.

Although Richard points out that these mites cannot deal with a heavy varroa his studies show promising signs they can maintain low varroa numbers. I am going to be keep a close eye on the Bet Vet site to see if this novel varroa treatment comes to the market.

If you’ve never attended any of the numerous events hosted by local and national bee association I would strongly recommend giving one a try. They are great fun and you can pick up all sorts of useful contacts.